Saturday, February 09, 2008

SPCO Quartet performs Different Trains

Last week I attended the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's "engine408" series for new music. First was the Quartet No. 2 by Philip Glass for 2 violins, viola and cello, a four-movement piece featuring the trademark repetitive arpeggios of that composer, woven into a 7-minute sound collage that is typical of minimalist music.

Then a John Adams piece, Road Movies, for violin and piano, that evoked the experience of three car journeys with different feels: Relaxed Groove, Meditative Swing, and 40% Swing. In the first movement, you saw the poles flashing by and felt the seams in the road, while the middle movement was evocative of a long, desert drive. Scott Yoo did a great job with the timing and phrasing on the violin, which is probably the key to playing this piece.

Finally, Steve Reich's masterpiece, Different Trains, which has three movements: America - Before the War, Europe - During the War, and After the War. This piece apparently grew from Reich's experience as a boy of riding the railways between New York and Los Angeles, following his parents' separation. A relative would travel with him, and tell him stories of how trains were used in Europe during the war to ship Jews to the camps. The contrast between these two train stories is the basis of the composition, and is obviously reflected in the music, which features three string quartets, train sounds, and spoken narration.

I have been a fan since I bought the Kronos Quartet's recording fifteen years ago. The SPCO players did a good job of executing this difficult piece; a quartet of players are accompanied by two (I think) recorded quartets and recorded narration. The experience isn't quite as seamless as on the Kronos CD, but you do get to enjoy the energy of the lead quartet, which consisted of Dale Barltrop and Nina Fan (violins), Evalina Chao (viola), and Joshua Koestenbaum (cello). This daring piece is really quite accessible to first time listeners, and well worth trying out on record if you haven't heard it.

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